CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A bill that would allow same-sex couples in Wyoming to create domestic partnerships carrying most of the legal rights of conventional marriage cleared a committee vote Monday, a move that sends pro-gay legislation on to a full floor debate in the state Legislature for the first time.
Rep. Cathy Connolly, a Laramie Democrat and a lesbian, sponsored both bills.
The House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee advanced the domestic partnership bill on a seven-to-two vote. The bill would give same-sex couples the same property and hospital-visitation rights as same-sex couples. The committee shot down the full gay marriage bill by a vote of five-to-four.
Speaking after the votes, Connolly said she expects the domestic partnership bill together with a bill pending in the Wyoming Senate that would outlaw discrimination against people on the basis of their sexual orientation both will pass the full Legislature this session. She has sponsored similar bills in past legislative sessions only to see them fail.
Connolly said she sees societal changes as responsible for the vote to advance the domestic partnership bill.
“It’s the reality that everyone now is touched by someone who is gay or lesbian in their lives, their friends, their neighbors, their churches,” she said.
In the minds of many, Wyoming’s place in the history of the gay rights movement will forever be linked to the 1998 murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. Police said he was targeted for a fatal beating because of his sexual orientation. Federal hate crimes legislation now bears his name.
Jason Marsden of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, a Denver-based gay-rights organization, testified Monday that he and his partner Guy Padgett, a former mayor of Casper, have no rights as a couple in Wyoming despite having been together for nearly 15 years.
Marsden told the committee there are many similar couples in the state. “It matters to real people what you’re doing here, and it’s deeply appreciated,” he said.
Speaking after the vote to advance the domestic partnership bill, Marsden said he senses that Wyoming legislators are becoming more aware that there are same-sex couples in every county in the state. Republicans outnumber Democrats 78-12 in the Wyoming Legislature.
“With the turnover in the Legislature, there are more legislators in the majority party who actually know gay couples,” Marsden said. “Some of them have children, and I think the actual lack of legal protection for those families has come to legislators’ attention: medical decision-making, parenting issues, inheritance issues, and that Wyoming family law is just a great big roadblock to those couples sorting out their own affairs.
“I think there’s a growing sense that the appropriate, small-government solution is to let people set up relationships to the extent that they can provide their own legal protections for their own families,” Marsden said.
Opposition to both bills was strident, with many opponents testifying that they see religious and “natural law” arguments against allowing either same-sex marriage or domestic partnerships.
Rep. Lynn Hutchings (R-Cheyenne), spoke against both bills. A black woman serving her first term in the House, she called on gays and lesbians to “please stop carpet-bagging on our civil rights movement.”
Testifying while seated at a table next to Connolly, Hutchings said she has heard some gays and lesbians equate their struggle for civil rights to the efforts of mixed-race couples to secure the legal right to marry in the late 1960s.
Hutchings said being black is a result of genetics. “It is inborn,” she said. “Science does not evidence a genetic involvement to homosexuality. It is but a choice. Being black is involuntary, it is not a choice. Homosexuals may choose who they want to be.”
Rep. Dan Zwonitzer (R-Cheyenne), and Rep. James Byrd (D-Cheyenne), both co-sponsors of Connolly’s bills, remarked before they voted that they found Hutching’s remarks distasteful.
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